Seeing machines



The Transnational Institute has published a glossy version of a chapter from Steve Graham‘s Vertical – called Drone: Robot Imperium, you can download it here (open access).  Not sure about either of the terms in the subtitle, but it’s a good read and richly illustrated.

Steve includes a discussion of the use of drones to patrol the US-Mexico border, and Josh Begley has published a suggestive account of the role of drones but also other ‘seeing machines’ in visualizing the border.

One way the border is performed — particularly the southern border of the United States — can be understood through the lens of data collection. In the border region, along the Rio Grande and westward through the desert Southwest, Customs and Border Protection (CBP) deploys radar blimps, drones, fixed-wing aircraft, helicopters, seismic sensors, ground radar, face recognition software, license-plate readers, and high-definition infrared video cameras. Increasingly, they all feed data back into something called “The Big Pipe.”

Josh downloaded 20,000 satellite images of the border, stitched them together, and then worked with Laura Poitras and her team at Field of Vision to produce a short film – Best of Luck with the Wall – that traverses the entire length of the border (1, 954 miles) in six minutes:

The southern border is a space that has been almost entirely reduced to metaphor. It is not even a geography. Part of my intention with this film is to insist on that geography.

By focusing on the physical landscape, I hope viewers might gain a sense of the enormity of it all, and perhaps imagine what it would mean to be a political subject of that terrain.


If you too wonder about that last sentence and its latent bio-physicality – and there is of course a rich stream of work on the bodies that seek to cross that border – then you might visit another of Josh’s projects, Fatal Migrations, 2011-2016 (see above and below).


There’s an interview with Josh that, among other things, links these projects with his previous work.

I have a couple of projects that are smartphone centered. One of them is about mapping the geography of places around the world where the CIA carries out drone strikes—mostly in Pakistan, Yemen, and Somalia. Another was about looking at the geography of incarceration in the United States—there are more than 5,000 prisons—and trying to map all of them and see them through satellites. I currently have an app that is looking at the geography of police violence in the United States. Most of these apps are about creating a relationship between data and the body, where you can receive a notification every time something unsettling happens. What does that mean for the rest of your day? How do you live with that data—data about people? In some cases the work grows out of these questions, but in other cases the work really is about landscape….

There’s just so much you can never know from looking at satellite imagery. By definition it flattens and distorts things. A lot of folks who fly drones, for instance, think they know a space just from looking at it from above. I firmly reject that idea. The bird’s eye view is never what it means to be on the ground somewhere, or what it means to have meaningful relationships with people on the ground. I feel like I can understand the landscape from 30,000 feet, but it is not the same as spending time in a space.

Anjali Nath has also provided a new commentary on one of Josh’s earlier projects, Metadata, that he cites in that interview – ‘Touched from below: on drones, screens and navigation’, Visual Anthropology 29 (3) (2016) 315-30.

It’s part of a special issue on ‘Visual Revolutions in the Middle East’, and as I explore the visual interventions I’ve included in this post I find myself once again thinking of a vital remark by Edward Said:


That’s part of the message behind the #NotaBugSplat image on the cover of Steve’s essay: but what might Said’s remark mean more generally today, faced with the proliferation of these seeing machines?


Unimaginative geographies

Last week I was asked to contribute a 6-700 word Op-Ed to the Washington Post‘s In Theory series on ‘othering’ and the Middle East.  They wanted me to write about Edward Said‘s concept of ‘imaginative geographies’ and its implications for US foreign policy.

I wrote a quick draft and sent it off.  The core argument was that one of the most debilitating consequences of these bipolar imaginative geographies is their refusal to recognize and value those things that we have in common with others.  This wasn’t a clarion call for the reinstatement of the supposedly universal subject of humanism, of course: just a reminder that the accent on difference can blind us to the co-presence of commonality.  Nothing new about that, really, and like Matthew Yglesias (below) I’ve been arguing this for an age:

YGLESIAS Commonality.001

Then I took the dog for a walk.  By the time I returned, I had an idea for a conclusion, which was about radical narcissism, so I sent it off:

At best, we are offered a radical narcissism in which we imagine what it would be like if the suburbs of Washington, D.C., suffered air raids night after night, or if our skies were full of the sound of drones, watching and waiting to strike without warning. In imagining our lives made newly vulnerable to military violence, however, we continue to privilege “our” space and separate it from “their” space. If we can imagine such horrors happening to us, why is it so difficult to imagine them being visited on others?

This follows more or less directly from what I’d been thinking about the ways in which, in the wake of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the United States collectively imagined itself as newly vulnerable: hence the stream of articles and illustrations in the 1940s and 50s imagining a nuclear strike on New York or Washington.

But over the weekend I took the dog for another walk, and had another thought – about the politics of affect.   If we limit our understanding of imaginative geographies to the interpretative frameworks of ‘the other’ – the assumptions and conventions through which they make sense of the world – then we marginalise the affective: in particular those visceral responses to the experience of violent death and destruction which we also share to varying degrees.  So it is that too often we fail to grasp the anger of somebody desperately seeking shelter from yet another air strike, the anguish of a mother or father cradling the body of their dead child, the despair of a family as they watch their home bulldozed to the ground, or the humiliation of a young man made to lower his trousers and raise his shirt by soldiers at a checkpoint.  And as we attribute their response to ‘their’ unreason we continue to inflict our own, always ‘rational’ – read ‘precise’, ‘measured’, ‘scientific’ – violence upon them.

Too late for the published version, which you can find here.

Cracks in the Wall?

Keep-Your-Eye-on-the-WallThere’s a fine series of reflections by Andrew Ryder at Warscapes on a new book of photographs and essays on the Wall that Israel has built deep inside the occupied West Bank, Keep your eye on the Wall: Palestinian landscapes.  As Andrew notes,

‘The wall is a nuisance and eyesore; it is a scar in the natural landscape and the social body. It is congealed theft, and an act of violence.’

Eyal Weizman‘s Hollow Land tells us much about the way in which Israel’s neo-colonial project is inscribed through a series of visual practices – a scopic regime of extraordinary, ever-present and brooding violence – but Andrew’s commentary reminds us of another, no less artful politics of looking.  He engages in a wonderfully suggestive, deeply critical way with the aesthetics of dispossession and oppression:

While I found many of the photos in this book upsetting, I think that a traditionally aesthetic standpoint toward the wall, a disinterested interest, is particularly horrifying because it occludes something that was always obvious to me every time I looked at the wall, which was its manifest injustice.

Throughout the book, there are moments that the wall appears too static, imposing and impermeable. I found a lack of witness to the gaps and even the fragility of the structure. There seems little evidence of soldiers, checkpoints, settlements, refugee camps or the other evidence of dynamism or vulnerability in the territorial apparatus that the Israeli state has constructed.

The gaps I understand, but fragility?  vulnerability?  If only.  As Shakespeare put in in A Midsummer Night’s Dream,

O wicked Wall through whom I see no bliss!
Cursed be thy stones for thus deceiving me!
Others have travelled this route before, of course: I’ve already noted other critical reflections on the political and ethical snares set by any attempt to photograph the monstrosity.  And yet the collection that Andrew discusses is well-titled.  As Edward Said reminded his readers:
Observer and observed
For a different take on the political aesthetics of the occupied landscape – though not on the Wall – see Daniel Bertrand Monk’s An aesthetic occupation: the immediacy of architecture and the Palestine conflict (2002).

Saviours and victims

Bhakti Shringarpure has a wide-ranging conversation with Mahmood Mamdani over at Warscarpes.  It covers a lot of ground, but one of the central threads is Mamdani’s insistence on conducting a ‘history of violence’, which is to say a history of the present (Darfur, Ruanda) in ways that disclose the historical context for today’s horrors.

MAMDANI Saviors and survivorsHence Saviors and Survivors: Darfur, Politics and the War on Terror, in which Mamdani argued that the crisis in Darfur had to be read as a vicious gavotte of insurgency and counterinsurgency rather than genocide (as many commentators in the West insist).  Explaining his insistence on a dispersed, situated agency, Mamdani sets himself against what he calls the ‘new’ narrative of human rights:

‘The conventional approach, the approach used by the contemporary human rights movement, has been to document the atrocities, [to take] testimony, to identify perpetrators, to name and shame. The perpetrator is portrayed as someone with all the agency in the world. The victim is someone with no agency. That’s the narrative….  The old human rights movement, which was born with the French revolution – human rights of man, the citizen – it sought to empower the victim and to focus on issues. This new one seeks to empower saviors to salvage this helpless victim.’

He also talks about the politics of writing (and about the part his Harvard room-mate, Michael Ignatieff, played in the development of his own style), about audiences and public intellectuals, about the book through which I first came to know his work, Good Muslim, Bad Muslim: America, the Cold War and the roots of terror, the role Edward Said had in its publication, and his own ‘voyage in’, and he ends with this reflection on teaching at Columbia:

The downside of American students is this thing which runs through – seems to run through – the Western experience, but seems particularly crystallized in the American case, which is this notion that you can save the world. And this determination to save the world. This conviction that they know what’s good for the world, and they know what’s good for you, better than you know. So it’s almost like the medieval Christians who burnt people to save their souls.

They can be like the modern counterpart of the missionaries. They are not particularly interested in the problem: They are there to give you the solution. By the time they leave the university, they are imbued with the sense of what should be the solution. I always tell them that, before you get unleashed upon the world, let me have a chance to talk to you. Get them to realize that the real question is not, “What’s the solution?” – it’s “What’s the problem?” And the elements of any sustainable solution have to be found inside the problem.

But it’s not a peculiarly American conceit.  One of the characteristic gestures of modern colonialism and imperialism has been, precisely, to insist on its mission to bring ‘order’ from the outside to save those souls who would otherwise be condemned to their own chronic ‘disorder’.  This has been on view most recently in Tony Blair’s athletic support for the military intervention in Egypt: ‘Bringing about stability in the Middle East is not somebody else’s job, it’s ours.’  Perhaps it’s time somebody wrote Good Christian, Bad Christian.

Dignity and destruction in Gaza

Noam Chomsky delivering the 2013 Edward Said Memorial Lecture

Edward Said died ten years ago in September, and earlier this month Noam Chomsky delivered the 2013 Edward Said Memorial Lecture in London: Violence and dignity: reflections on the Middle East.  The text that formed the basis for the lecture is here, and you can watch a video of the lecture here with introductions by Omar Al Qattan and Mariam Said.

It’s a wide-ranging lecture, but Chomsky returns again and again to the plight of the people of Gaza – and to the disgraceful actions of all those (inside Israel and out) who would rob them of their dignity, their independence and even their life.

Throughout these years Gaza has been a showcase for violence of every imaginable kind. The record includes such sadistic and carefully planned atrocities as Operation Cast Lead — “infanticide,” as it was called by the remarkable Norwegian physician Mads Gilbert who worked tirelessly at Gaza’s al-Shifa hospital with his dedicated Palestinian and Norwegian colleagues right through the criminal assault — a fair term, considering the hundreds of children massacred. And from there the violence ranges through just about every kind of cruelty that humans have used their higher mental faculties to devise, up to the pain of exile that Edward Said wrote about so eloquently. This is particularly stark in Gaza, where older people can still look across the border towards the homes a few miles away from which they were driven — or could if they were able to approach the border without being killed. One form of punishment has been to close off the Gaza side of the border area, including almost half the arable land, according to the leading academic scholar of Gaza, Harvard’s Sara Roy.

While a showcase for the human capacity for violence, Gaza is also an inspiring exemplar of the demand for dignity. The first phrase one hears in Gaza when asking about personal aspirations is for a life of dignity. The distinguished human rights lawyer Raji Sourani writes from his Gaza home that “What has to be kept in mind is that the occupation and the absolute closure is an ongoing attack on the human dignity of the people in Gaza in particular and all Palestinians generally. It is systematic degradation, humiliation, isolation and fragmentation of the Palestinian people.” While the bombs were once again raining down on defenseless civilians in Gaza last November he repeated that “We demand justice and accountability. We dream of a normal life, in freedom and dignity.”

Gaza Strip restrictions

Last fall the brilliant Sara Roy gave another Said Memorial Lecture, this time at the Palestine Center in Washington DC, A deliberate cruelty: rendering Gaza unviable.  She spoke of Edward’s commitment to Gaza and its people:

Edward and I would always speak about Gaza, in fact every time we met. He felt a profound connection to the place and to the people that seemed to be a permanent part of him. Edward had great compassion and great respect for Gaza’s people. He embraced their suffering and took pride in their courage, in the dignified way they continued to move forward. Yet he feared one thing perhaps most of all: the separation and isolation that now engulfs Gaza and threatens, if it hasn’t already, to sever the Palestinians there from Palestinians elsewhere, forcing them, in the words of Hannah Arendt, to “live outside the common world,” deprived of profession and of citizenship, “without a deed by which to identify or specify [themselves].”

Edward raged against the division of his people and against the kind of loss that such division could bring: disunity, abandonment, irrelevance. In The Origins of Totalitarianism, Arendt argues that the fundamental deprivation of human rights is expressed first and most powerfully in “the deprivation of a place in the world which makes opinions significant and actions effective. Something much more fundamental than freedom and justice… is at stake when belonging to the community into which one is born is no longer a matter of course and not belonging no longer a matter of choice…” “This extremity and nothing else,” she writes, “is the situation of people deprived of human rights. They are deprived not of the right to freedom but of the right to action.” “Over the last 45 years Gaza’s trajectory has been striking; from a territory economically integrated into, and deeply dependent upon, Israel and deeply tied to the West Bank, to an area largely marginalized from Israel and the West Bank, an isolated (and disposable) enclave – subject to consistent military attacks – with which Israel and the West Bank have fewer formal economic or political ties than they once did. And from a captive economy restricted to fluctuating levels of growth (at best) but still possessed of the capacity to produce and innovate (within limitations), to an economy increasingly deprived of that capacity, characterized by unprecedented levels of unemployment and impoverishment, with three-quarters of its population needing humanitarian assistance. These damaging transformations among others I shall discuss are becoming increasingly institutionalized and permanent, shaping a future that is both partial and disfigured. What is happening to Gaza is, in my view, catastrophic; it is also deliberate, considered and purposeful.

ROY Gaza StripHer lecture is spell-binding –though I hope that once and for all it breaks the spell of Israel’s ‘withdrawal’ from Gaza.  The map above comes from a UN report, Gaza in 2020: a liveable place? that is summarised here, and the text and a video of Sara’s lecture are available here and here.  The text will form part of Sara’s introduction to a new edition of The Gaza Strip: the Political Economy of De-development.

Marc Ellis provides a wonderful summary of and meditation on Sara’s passionately analytical lecture at Mondoweiss here, and you can access Sara’s A Land Diminished: reflections on Gaza’s landscape (2011) here (it also appears as a chapter in an important collection from the Ibrahim Abu-Lughod Institute of International Studies at Birzeit University, Gaza, Palestine: Out of the margins, which is available here).

Judith Butler and the analytics of power

Claire Pagès and Mathieu Trachman conduct a concise but wide-ranging interview with Judith Butler at Books & Ideas, in which she asks this about neo-liberalism and the economic:

‘[I]f we claim that neo-liberalism disposes populations to become disposable, and exposes populations to precarity, we have to ask whether we are speaking about a purely economic rationale and regime of power (by “ neo-liberalism ”), a regime of power that governs the practices of subject-formation, including self-making, and the valorization of the metric of instrumentality in ways that include and exceed the sphere conventionally denoted as “ economic ”.  Indeed, does the power and pervasiveness of “ neo-liberalism” compel us to think about the heteronomy of the economic and the way that the rationalities that govern its operation exceed the purely economic. Must we give up an idea of the purely economic by virtue of neo-liberalism at the same time that we cannot do without the economic?’

Judith Butler, Parting Ways (2012)Incidentally, readers who have followed the sometimes repellent response to Judith’s receipt of the Adorno Prize can find her speech at the award ceremony in Frankfurt on 11 September  – ‘Can one lead a good life in a bad life?’ – here (I think this is the Radical Philosophy version, with images that speak to the controversy) or, in unadorned form, here.

You can also find details of her new book, Parting ways: Jewishness and the critique of Zionism (Columbia University Press) – which, in its closing chapter, engages with Edward Said and Mahmoud Darwishhere.  Like all her work, this book – which also includes reflections around Arendt, Benjamin and Levinas – admirably fulfils her own beautifully understated view of what it is to be critical: that is, to be ‘willing to examine what we sometimes presuppose in our way of thinking, and that gets in the way of making a more livable world.’

Martial arts

If you’re tired of all the war-talk – I mean ‘war on the humanities’ talk – then try Anthony Galluzzo on teaching the humanities at the US Military Academy at West Point (yes): Sarah Lawrence, with guns, over at Jacobin.

“I agreed with a lot of what you said today, Professor Galluzzo,” he said. “But don’t you think there’s a difference between imaginary others and actual people you meet on the ground, in a place like Afghanistan? Can’t fantasies also reinforce stereotypes?” He articulated my own misgivings. I suggested he read Edward Said.

Although Greg didn’t know the book, his questions reminded me that Orientalism – a text and term often invoked by many of my West Point colleagues at the time as what “we” weren’t doing over there – is very much about the ideological misuse of imaginative literature in the service of nineteenth-century imperialism.

More (and older) thoughts from another instructor at a military academy, Lucretia Flammanghere: ‘We would not have a literature of modern war if warriors had not written it.’

And while we’re on the subject: last year US News and World Report named the US Military Academy at West Point and the US Naval Academy at Annapolis as the best public liberal arts colleges in the United States…

I’m as sceptical of the rankings game as you are, but I’m left wondering about the rhetorical effect of reports like this on an American public.

And all this certainly reminds us that the history of the humanities has been intimately entwined with the history of war in ways that transcend any simple (and usually noble) vision of the humanities representing and reflecting on human conflict (see, for example, Harvard’s Drew Faust here).  We know from Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak and others some of the ways in which violence has been written in to the very constitution of the humanities, but it’s surely time to return to those questions and think, more concretely, about these martial Arts of ours…

If you think so too, then (to start the conversation) see Homi Bhabha speaking on The Humanities and the Anxiety of Violence earlier this year here.

Orientalism and War

Forthcoming from Hurst in the UK – who have an expanding catalogue of books on the Middle East that is full of delights – and Columbia University Press in North America (September/October 2012), this edited collection on Orientalism and War emerged from a superb conference I attended at Oxford in June 2010.

But it’s not the usual quick-and-dirty “Proceedings” volume; Tarak Barkawi and Keith Stanski have done a marvellous job of editing, and the papers have all been revised for publication.  I’ve listed the Contents at the end of this post.

In their Introduction, Tarak and Keith treat Orientalism as a regime of truth:

‘For us, this focus on Orientalism as an institutionalized community of experts is crucial. Orientalism is not mere bias against Easterners; it is a regime of truth. Views that in fact amount to grotesque misrepresentation come to be accepted by the authorized experts and by those they communicate with. One such misrepresentation that sits at the core of historical and contemporary Orientalisms concerns the East as a site of disorder and the West as that which brings order to disorder.’

The gavotte between order and disorder is one of the central ways in which Orientalism is so deeply entangled with war, and – as they also note – ‘war entails a cycle of the unmaking and remaking of truths of all kinds.’  In particular, war has ‘an uncanny capacity to overturn received wisdom of all kinds. Wars and military operations rarely turn out as expected.’

This is obviously about far more than the imaginative geographies that Edward Said exposed so wonderfully well in his Orientalism; as the chapters in the book document in different ways and in different placesthese regimes of truth impose and inscribe material economies of violence that, in their turn, enforce those regimes of truth.  The relation between the two is not a frictionless machine but a slippery series of precepts, protocols and practices that can (and usually does) come undone – the point that Tarak and Keith sharpen so well –  but the dangerous liaison between epistemological violence and physical violence is of cardinal and continuing importance.

For Said, Orientalism entailed two cultural-political performances:

  • First, ‘the Orient’ was summoned as an exotic and bizarre space, and at the limit a pathological and even monstrous space: ‘a living tableau of queerness.’
  • Second, ‘the Orient’ was constructed as a space that had to be domesticated, disciplined and normalized through a forceful projection of the order it was presumed to lack: ‘framed by the classroom, the criminal court, the prison, the illustrated manual.’

As I’ve said, these performances wrought considerably more than epistemological violence. The Orientalist projection of order was more than conceptual or cognitive, for the process of ordering also conveyed the sense of command and conquest. Said knew this very well, and his critique of Orientalism was framed by a series of wars. Orientalism (1978) opens with the civil war in Lebanon, a place that had a special significance for Said; it was a belated response to his puzzlement at the jubilation on the streets of New York at the Israeli victory in the 1967 and 1973 wars; and it located the origins of a distinctively modern Orientalism in Napoleon’s military expedition to Egypt between 1798 and 1801.

And yet, even as he fastened on the importance of the French invasion and occupation, Said’s focus was unwaveringly on the textual appropriation of ‘ancient Egypt’ by the savants – the engineers, scientists and artists – who accompanied the French army.

Their collective work was enshrined in the monumental Description de l’Égypte, which Said described as a project ‘to render [Egypt] completely open, to make it totally accessible to European scrutiny’, and so to usher the Orient from what he called ‘the realms of silent obscurity’ into ‘the clarity of modern European science.’  The phrasing is instructive: visuality is a leitmotif of Orientalism. Said repeatedly notes that under its sign ‘the Orient is watched’, that the Orient was always more than tableau vivant or theatrical spectacle, and that the Orientalist technology of power-knowledge was, above all, about ‘making visible’, about the construction ‘of a sort of Benthamite panopticon’ from whose watch-towers ‘the Orientalist surveys the Orient from above, with the aim of getting hold of the whole sprawling panorama’ in every ‘dizzying detail’.

But Napoleon’s military expedition was about more than annexing Egypt as what Said calls ‘a department of French learning’, and its execution inflicted more than cultural violence.  In my own contribution to the volume, I tried to go beyond textual appropriations – even as I necessarily relied on an archive that is primarily textual – to trace the changing relations between Orientalism, visuality and military violence from the French occupation of Egypt to the American-led occupations of Afghanistan and Iraq.  (There’s an extended version of the essay under the DOWNLOADS tab).

Although I’ve emphasised the historical roots of Said’s critique in this post, I should note that the essays in Orientalism and War are all written by scholars with a clear sense of the continuing, dismally contemporary relations between the two (and Said himself displayed the same sensibility in his brilliant stream of essays on the dispossession of the Palestinian people).

‘When a book comes along that examines what should be obvious yet is utterly under-thought, you have to read it and teach it. This is such a book. It forces us to consider how war is unthinkable without Orientalism, and how Orientalism is unthinkable without war.’ — Cynthia Weber, Professor of International Relations, University of Sussex

‘Orientalism has a history in which projections of superiority and inferiority, fear and desire, repulsion and envy reach extremes that only war can resolve. From Herodotus to Petraeus, Orientalism and war have been cultural bedfellows. Assembling a diversity of views and keenness of inquiry rarely found in a single volume, Tarak Barkawi and Keith Stanski have revitalised the concept of Orientalism to bring a nuanced and complex understanding of how culture has become the killer variable of modern warfare.’ — James Der Derian, Professor of International Studies (Research), Brown University


1   Orientalism and War –  Tarak Barkawi and Keith Stanski

2  Shocked by War: the non-politics of Orientalism – Arjun Chowdhury

3  American Orientalism at War in Korea and the United States: a hegemony of racism, repression and amnesia – Bruce Cumings

4  Terror, the Imperial Presidency and American Heroism – Susan Jeffords

5  Can the insurgent speak? – Hugh Gusterson

6  Colonial Wars, Postcolonial Specters: the anxiety of domination – Quynh N. Pham and Himadeep R. Muppidi

7  Orientalism in the Machine – Josef Teboho Ansorge

8  Dis/Ordering the Orient: scopic regimes and modern war – Derek Gregory

9  Nesting Orientalisms at war: World War II and the “Memory War” in Eastern Europe – Maria Mälksoo

10  Victimhood as agency: Afghan women’s memoirs – Margaret A. Mills

11  Fanon’s “guerre des ondes”: resisting the call of Orientalism – John Mowitt

12  The Pleasures of Imperialism and the Pink Elephant: Torture, Sex, Orientalism – Patricia Owens

13  Afterword – Patrick Porter